More than 15 million commercial trucks travel along U.S. roadways, as truck drivers deliver 70 percent of the nation’s shipped goods each year. While the commercial trucking industry is an important aspect of the nation’s economy, large cargo trucks transporting goods pose hazards to all drivers.
In the last decade alone, the number of accidents involving large trucks has increased by 20 percent. Hoping to reduce the risks associated with commercial trucking, researchers and regulators constantly try to analyze and understand the causes of these often deadly crashes.
One common cause of large truck accidents is driver fatigue, which is a reported factor in 13 percent of all accidents involving commercial motor vehicles.
Read on for more information about truck driver fatigue, its impacts on the driver, warning signs, and how to prevent fatigued driving accidents.
The Dangers of Fatigued Driving
Fatigue is the result of physical or mental exertion that impairs a driver’s performance.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fatigue produces the following dangers to drivers of all types:
- It reduces the driver’s ability to pay attention to the road and the task of safe driving.
- It slows the reaction time needed for emergency driving maneuvers such as sudden braking or steering.
- It affects the driver’s ability to make good decisions.
Research shows that drivers who have not slept for 18 hours experience similar impairment to drivers operating a motor vehicle with a 0.08 blood alcohol content. Unlike average drivers, who are permitted to drive with at most a 0.08 blood alcohol content, the law holds commercial truck drivers to a higher standard.
Causes of Fatigue for Truck Drivers
The most common reason for truck driver fatigue is the lack of adequate quality sleep. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration notes that not only is getting sleep important, but when sleep occurs is also crucial in preventing fatigued driving accidents. The body has a natural instinct to sleep at night, influenced by the body’s circadian rhythm.
The body’s circadian rhythm naturally causes individuals to grow tired between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m., as well as between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. For drivers who failed to get seven to nine hours of sleep each day, as recommended, may experience more pronounced drowsiness during each of the time periods associated with the body’s circadian rhythm.
However, other reasons may explain why truck drivers experience fatigue, including:
- Sleep apnea: Sleep apnea is a breathing condition in which there is a temporary lapse in a person’s breathing pattern while sleeping. During seven to nine hours of sleep, hundreds of these temporary breathing pauses can take place. As a result, individuals suffering from sleep apnea experience disrupted sleep cycles, leaving them feeling unrested, even after sleeping for the recommended number of hours. Sleep apnea often affects obese individuals. More than 38 percent of truck drivers struggle with obesity.
- Drug use: Despite regular drug and alcohol testing, many truck drivers turn to illegal drugs or abuse prescription or over-the-counter medications to sleep or stay awake. Unfortunately, many of these drugs do little more than mask the driver’s ability to detect his or her own fatigue. A driver may feel he or she is alert and can drive, but in reality, they may be dangerously drowsy.
- Sleeping in a sleeper berth: A truck’s sleeper berth solves some issues regarding where a driver should sleep when he or she is out on the road. However, studies indicate that the likelihood of a driver getting into an accident is the highest within the first hour of driving after sleeping in a sleeper berth. Sleep inertia, which impairs the skills necessary for driving, may cause difficulties with short-term memory, vigilance, cognitive functioning, reaction time, and the ability to resist sleep.
Hours of Service Regulations
To combat the dangers associated with truck driver fatigue, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration implemented hours of service regulations.
While federal regulations are subject to periodic change, as of this writing, the regulations include:
- Truck drivers may drive up to 11 hours after an off-duty break of at least 10 consecutive hours.
- Drivers may be on-duty (including driving time and other job-related tasks) for up to 14 hours after an off-duty break of at least 10 consecutive hours.
- Drivers must take periodic breaks lasting at least 30 minutes.
- Drivers can only work 60 hours every seven days or 70 hours every eight days before taking an off-duty break of at least 34 consecutive hours.
Federal regulations apply to most long-haul drivers who are transporting commercial goods. There are also hours of service rules for commercial drivers—such as bus drivers—who transport people.
Know the Warning Signs
While driver fatigue is of particular concern for truck drivers, it is something that all drivers need to know.
Warning signs that may indicate a drowsy driver include:
- Difficulty focusing or paying attention to the task of driving.
- Repeated yawning or head bobbing.
- The inability to keep one’s eyes open.
- Feelings of restlessness, irritability, or impatience.
- The inability to remember the last few miles of the journey.
- Drifting onto the shoulder of the road or into an adjacent traffic lane.
- The inability to control speed or other abnormal driving behavior, such as ignoring traffic signs or tailgating other vehicles.
Drivers can prevent all accidents, including the dangerous combination of drowsiness and driving, by:
- Ensuring they get enough sleep before driving and being aware of when their bodies are telling them it is time to pull over and rest.
- Allowing themselves the opportunity to take a nap when needed. Most drivers find that napping for around 45 minutes can help alleviate many of the symptoms associated with drowsy driving.
- Avoiding driving at night, if possible. Many drivers prefer to drive at night as there is less traffic. However, because of the body’s circadian rhythm, late-night driving increases the risk of accidents caused by fatigue.
- Avoiding medications that cause drowsiness while on duty. This includes many over-the-counter medications commonly used to treat congestion from colds and allergies.
- The use of technology that can detect drowsy driving and warn the driver.